Over the centuries since Aesop, animals have come to be seen as belonging to the realm of children. But Classical Greek fables are typically subversive political critiques from the lower classes.
It is not certain if Aesop really existed. Greeks in the fifth century b.c.e. thought of him as a sixth-century fabulist. The historian Herodotus claimed Aesop was from Phrygia or Lydia and served as a slave in Samos, and legend had it that he was ugly and had a speech impediment, that he was freed by his master Iadmon due to his wit. Legend also says that he was condemned to death for sacrilege, or that a crowd of angry Delphians framed him for theft by planting a gold bowl on him and killed him by throwing him off a cliff into the sea.
Nor is it known to what extent the fables that survive represent his original work, which would have been passed down orally. Latin and Greek collections in the first centuries a.d. are the first surviving texts, although it seems that some bits were written down around 300 b.c.e. The often cheesy morals tacked on were added in the Middle Ages.
For all their entertainment value, the world characterized in the fables is pretty nasty. The powerful are predatory. And “Though Aesop clearly sided with the oppressed creatures (i.e., the slaves and the common people), he often showed how the victims victimized themselves through stupidity” (Zipes 281).
Among the most famous of the fables are “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Hare and the Tortoise,” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.” Lions, wolves, foxes, and jackasses appear frequently.
Most will remember Aesop’s story of “The Ants and the Grasshopper” as a moral tale of an idle grasshopper playing and being generally worthless while the ants toil doggedly, until a season when food is scarce and the grasshopper realizes that the prepared ants had the right attitude about life all along. Take another look at this story. Unlike the cartoony kiddie books that start with the backstory, Aesop confronts us immediately with “a cold, frosty day” and “A grasshopper, half-dead with hunger” who “asked the ants for a morsel to save his life.” I know what you did last summer, remark the ants, somewhat sanctimoniously: “as they laughed and shut their storehouse, ‘since you kept yourself busy by singing all summer, you can do the same by dancing all winter.'” Forget the puritanical cartoon moral; consider this story as a slave parable concerning the workers vs. the privileged! And what are the consequences? Not simply a bitter lesson learned, but apparently starvation!
Aesop. Fables. Trans. George Fyler Townsend. http://www.literature.org/authors/aesop/fables/
Aesop’s Fables. Ed. Jack Zipes. NY: Penguin Books, 1992.
Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt, eds. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 595-611.